Obituary: John Phillip Blackburn / He went from campus to acting in spite of heart issues

Dec. 4, 1932 - Feb. 16, 2014

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After two open-heart surgeries, one might be expected to take it easy.

Not Jack Blackburn. With a pacemaker dictating his heartbeat, he continued his tennis hobby, playing several times a week.

John "Jack" Phillip Blackburn of Wexford died on Sunday of congestive heart failure, an illness he fought for three decades. He was 81.

During his childhood in Allison Park, Mr. Blackburn struggled with a stutter, but conquered it by taking singing lessons -- showing a persistence that marked him throughout his life, family members said.

"Every accomplishment you make, no matter how small, gives you more self-confidence," Mr. Blackburn would say, according to his wife, Kathleen Blackburn.

When he graduated from high school, Mr. Blackburn wasn't sure what he wanted to do. An advertisement he received in the mail led him to become a student at Duff's Business Institute, where he studied accounting.

He then set off on a career managing the finances of universities, working as assistant to the controller at Duquesne University for more than 20 years.

Mr. Blackburn had the meticulous nature of an accountant, chiding his wife for being 28 cents off when she balanced her checkbook.

His family often spent days at the beach in Ocean City, N.J., and when they left he would show his diligence by picking up each of his six children one by one, dipping their feet in the ocean, and carrying them to the car, to make sure no sand found its way to the floor, his daughter Lisa Hall said.

He had a tendency to look at the bright side of things, family and friends say, and was a passionate churchgoer.

"Wherever we went, he wanted to know how to get to the church," Mrs. Blackburn said.

Mr. Blackburn's cheerfulness sometimes went too far, leading him to dole out more one-liners than those around him might have liked.

One of them, Mrs. Blackburn said, involved a duck buying chapstick at a drug store. When the cashier asked how he would pay, the duck said, "put it on my bill."

"He said the corniest one-liners ever, ever, ever, ever," Ms. Hall said.

After retiring, Mr. Blackburn began a new career as an actor, with roles in commercials and more than 30 plays, including "Of Mice and Men," "Miracle on 34th Street" and several Neil Simon plays.

He starred in "Battles," a two-person performance in which he played a general confined to a hospital bed who overcame his prejudice by getting to know a black cadet.

He also had a prominent role in the Christian television series "Pastor Greg," playing Frank, a kindly man whom church members often sought for advice.

"One of the key capabilities of an actor is to have the audience believe in the character, and Jack excelled at that," longtime friend Chet Murphy said. "When I went to see him in plays, I was no longer watching my friend on stage -- I was immersed in the character."

Mr. Blackburn threw himself into his new career, showing so much pride in his work that, one Christmas, he gave his children 8-by-10 glossies of himself, bearing his signature.

In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Blackburn is survived by a brother, Larry Blackburn of Spokane, Wash.; five daughters, Lauren Posati, Ms. Hall, Karen Sabodish, Tracy Vrana, all of Pittsburgh, and Christine Blackburn of Los Angeles; a son, Scott Blackburn of Pittsburgh; a stepdaughter, Karen Balk of Squirrel Hill; a stepson Shawn Fortney of Cranberry; eight grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Memorial contributions can be made to the American Heart Association, 4 Gateway Center, 444 Liberty Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15222.


Richard Webner: rwebner@post-gazette.com or 412-263-4903.


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